Billy Donovan spoke for the first time as Bulls’ head coach Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters along with executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas.
Here are the eight most important things touched on, from the two’s roughly hour-long combined comments.
Bulls’ recruitment of Donovan was “relentless”
Karnišovas said that he didn’t expect Donovan to become available on the coaching market, but once he did, Karnišovas took it upon himself to move swiftly.
Donovan, meanwhile, was back home to see his family in Florida, having driven 17 hours the day after his mutual parting of ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Bulls’ job opening, he admitted, hadn’t crossed his mind, and both the courting process and his eventual hire was "out of left field."
“He (Karnišovas) was very proactive,” Donovan chided. “He called me, he wanted me to come in on Friday. I was like, ‘I just drove 17 hours. I probably need a little bit of a break here.’”
Soon after, Karnišovas and Eversley jetted to meet Donovan in Florida, where the three met for 5 ½ hours face-to-face, in Donovan’s estimation. Subsequent phone calls with Karnišovas and Eversley, and Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf, ensued.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, news of Donovan’s break from the Thunder was announced. By Wednesday, Sept. 9, Karnišovas was in touch. By Sept. 14, Donovan and Karnišovas were face-to-face. And by Sept. 22, Donovan was the Bulls’ coach. Even not knowing each other prior to the interview process, the potential for a fruitful partnership was apparent immediately.
“Once he became available, we were relentless in terms of trying to find ways to continue communication and kind of to prove to Billy that we are the spot for him,” Karnišovas said. “And we were able to do it, so I'm really proud of the fact that Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf were able to give us that opportunity to land a coach of this caliber.”
Why Karnišovas coveted Donovan
Karnišovas went into detail about the qualities intrinsic to Donovan that made him such an intriguing candidate.
“The most impressive thing being the relationships he’s built with players, coaches and [executives] that have worked with him over the years,” Karnišovas said, echoing the oft-repeated criteria for his search.
Other themes highlighted by Karnišovas: Donovan’s “great” communication skills, his valuing of relationships with others (and how immensely past players and peers respect him), and his ability to inspire enthusiasm in his players.
“Billy has a team-first mentality that embraces collaboration and partnership with his players, staff, and front office, and is very much aligned with the culture we are working to develop,” Karnišovas said.
That, in addition to Donovan’s long track record of success, is why he’s here. As Karnišovas later added, he was the most talented person available, a mantra fundamental to Karnišovas’ process. That the two hadn’t met prior to the interview process mattered naught.
Why Donovan chose the Bulls
This was perhaps the more pressing question. Donovan was the most accomplished candidate in a market with a number of attractive vacancies, including the still-open positions with the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers.
Karnišovas even said that Donovan didn’t have anything to prove to the Bulls in the interview process. Rather, “it was more about [the Bulls] selling [their] vision.”
So, why did Donovan decide to come aboard? Ultimately, he said it came down to finding a partnership, and he, Karnišovas and company gelled on that front.
“I was really, really taken back by what Artūras was looking for as it relates to trying to continue to build the Bulls, and the thing that stood out to me was he wants a partner,” Donovan said. “He wants someone to walk hand-in-hand with to just build things. That was really, really important to me.
“I think Artūras in the time we spent together in terms of his vision and what he was looking for, and wanting to do it together, was really, really impactful to me.”
And, of course, the Bulls allure.
“The history, the organization, what the Bulls have meant to the game of basketball and to basketball worldwide, I mean, it's an iconic franchise,” Donovan said. “And certainly to be part of trying to help build back up was certainly very, very appealing and exciting.”
Karnišovas later added that the Bulls’ market, history, resources (such as its practice facility), promising young players, future cap flexibility and draft picks with which to build all factored into his pitch as well.
“When we sat down and we talked about the roster, I thought that this roster is (more) talented than what they showed the last two years,” Karnišovas said. “On both sides, I think there was a lot of optimism.
“Looking at the roster, we spent a lot of time talking to Billy about offense, about defense, about the way he values relationships and how he rallies players around him and how he gets a buy-in from him. From those conversations, we were definitely on the same page and have the same mentality. So it was an easy decision to land on Billy.”
Donovan’s impressions of the Bulls’ roster
Donovan offered passing thoughts on various members of the Bulls’ roster when asked for his impressions on the team’s personnel.
For Coby White, Donovan reminisced about the 35-point outing the rookie had against Oklahoma City in February, “when he was going on his tear.” Lauri Markkanen, Donovan called a “unique player with his skillset and ability.” Zach LaVine, a “guy that’s got great offensive ability and can create his own shot.” He cited Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr. as indicative of a “blend” of veterans and young players.
Donovan also said he actively recruited two current Bulls when they were coming out of high school: Wendell Carter Jr. and Ryan Arcidiacono. He said he was “familiar” with Carter when he was younger and called him a “high-character, talented big man.”
“I think the biggest thing is trying to help the group become a team,” Donovan said. “That’s not to say they were or not, but getting them to play together, to play for each other. I think the last several years for them they’ve had an enormous amount of injuries. They’ve certainly had setbacks, where they’ve had guys in and out of the rotation and playing. But I like the fact that there is a nice blend of some older guys and some younger guys, and I look forward to getting together and working with them.”
Donovan won’t be in the Bulls’ bubble
That introductory process, like all things amid the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a bit uneven. Donovan said he won’t join the Bulls in the Advocate Center/downtown hotel “campus” where the team is conducting voluntary group workouts through Oct. 6 for both safety reasons and the extended quarantine period that would be necessary for him to enter.
Still, Donovan will be in virtual contact with Bulls players. He said he’s already texted a few since his hiring. LaVine has confirmed himself as one of them.
“Artūras and I are communicating and what we'd talked about, whether it be through Zoom calls, or just personal phone calls, me reaching out to the players individually and collectively as a group to continue to try and build those relationships,” Donovan said.
“It's really on me, we needed to get this situation finalized, where everything was done in terms of me and Artūras agreeing to work together and now what I’ve got to do going forward is really start to reach out and start to communicate with these guys. At least a very introductory phone call or zoom call with these guys to try and keep in touch.”
Asked if he’s considered how he will go about assembling his coaching staff, Donovan didn’t offer much in the way of specifics, but said he and Karnisovas will collaborate on the decisions, and that coaches from both across the league and already in the Bulls’ building will be considered.
“That’s something Artūras and I have been talking about and working on,” he said. “Obviously, there are staff members there that are still with the Bulls. I also think the other piece of it too with our staff is how do we build out the best staff that I can work with, they can work with me, work with Artūras?
“That’s something we’re certainly going to look at from top to bottom, not only maybe around the league but certainly the coaches that are in Chicago right now. I look forward to talking with those guys and having some conversations. Artūras will be part of that. We’ll work together on that. The biggest focus for us right now is how do we put together the best group that we can put together to help the players.”
So, TBD on that front. In the meantime, Chris Fleming continues to lead voluntary group workouts at the Advocate Center.
Peek into player development philosophy
Karnišovas and Donovan both spoke often about the importance of developing the players on the Bulls’ roster — it’s been a theme since Karnišovas was hired.
Donovan said his player development strategy is one that centers on empowerment and coaching to players' needs and talents, a process carried out through collaboration. He said he strives for the Bulls to be a “player first program.”
“The first thing I’ll do is watch a lot of film,” Donovan said. “One of the things I’ve always felt like is important when you’re building out different things offensively is I think you’ve got to spend time with players to let me hear from them: How they want to be used? How do they feel like they’re most effective? What are things they feel most comfortable doing? How can you take advantage of their skill set and their offense?
“And I think you go through that with the players and talking to them and getting their opinions and their thoughts. And then you build out from there how you want to play.”
To that end, he cited the Thunder’s adapted offensive system last season, in spite of introducing nine new players between 2018-19 and 2019-20, as an example of that approach in action — even when it seemingly didn't jibe with certain trends of the modern game (i.e. the Thunder shot a lot of midrange jumpers, which we should expect more of in Chicago this season).
“I think it's one of the most impressive jobs [Donovan] did was last year (with Oklahoma City),” Karnišovas said. “His ability to adapt, to adjust, to change things, based on his roster and what he has was really impressive, regardless the turnover.”
For Donovan, the player development process is an intricate one, predicated on direct communication paired with concerted planning and action.
“It’s two-fold. Yes, it’s talking to the players. Yes, it’s trying to put them in situations. But you’ve got to get them on the court. They’ve got to work to get better. They’ve got to work and embrace their role. They’ve got to obviously study film. It’s a pretty extensive thing,” he said. “It’s not just the development, ‘OK, we’re going to put this guy in this role where he’s going to develop.’ There’s certain things that we all need to get better at, coaches, players, where you’re working to improve, you’re working to get better. And that’s what I would really try to focus on in terms of the development piece.
“It’s not just putting them in specific roles. It’s on the court. It’s film. It’s getting them to understand how to impact the team in a positive way. How they can impact and make the people around them better. I’ve always felt like the sign of a great player is a player who makes everyone around them better. When they’re playing their role and they’re making the group better, I think they have a chance to continue to blossom and grow and improve through that.”
And, he noted later, it's about confidence.
Empowering players doesn’t stop when they leave the floor
Donovan was in the NBA’s Disney World bubble from July until the first week of September, as voices across the association advocated for causes of social and racial justice in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the countless Black lives lost to racist violence in the United States’ history. Donovan also coached Chris Paul, president of the NBPA.
He said that experience was an inspiring one, and committed to supporting players using their platforms to call for change in the forms needed.
“I was really proud of all the players in terms of using their platform to bring awareness of the change that’s necessary to make our country better,” Donovan said. “I think that the more our players can use their voice or coaches can use their voices to constantly bring awareness to the fact that we all need to be better, we need to get better, we need to help this country heal and move forward together, the better off we’re going to be.”
“I thought watching that take place in Orlando, how all the players and coaches came together to use that platform to bring awareness was really, really special. It was great. I really give Chris Paul a lot of credit. Not only is he a great player and a guy that had a lot on his plate, but helping the league get back to playing in Orlando as well as addressing a lot of things that need to change in our country was really powerful. I’m always going to support the players, because everybody’s experiences in this country are different. We all need to get better, and we need to improve in those areas.”